Most romantic comedies follow the same formula: There are two people that, for various reasons, can’t be together. The timing’s not right. One of them hesitates and misses the moment. There’s another man or woman. They had a fight after a relatively innocuous deception comes to light. They had sex and it might have been a mistake. One of these obstacles ultimately gives way to a movie-clinching sequence in which the man or the woman rights the wrong; there’s a kiss and the movie ends shortly thereafter. The new couple has met its end—no, not death, but rather a bright future together that is punctuated by a cheery song and mutual elation. Everyone is happy, there is no story left to tell. Cue Natalie Cole!
Romantic comedies peddle a version of romance that lies somewhere between reality-adjacent and straight-up outlandish, and that’s why they are wonderful, but rarely do they contend with what comes next. Did Harry and Sally stay together? Did Sam Baldwin convince Annie Reed to move to Seattle? Nora Ephron never asked us to consider these questions, because the improbable courtship is all that mattered.
This rosy version of romance is rarely seen in movie theaters now; it’s more akin to the vaguely dystopian courtship seen on reality dating shows like The Bachelor, 90 Day Fiancé, or even Married at First Sight. The rom-com beats have been distorted for reality TV to accommodate an endless cycle of fabricated relationships. The quixotic pursuit of love has morphed into “the journey,” The Bachelor’s oft-repeated euphemism for how the man sorts through the 30-odd women vying to be his fiancée. Shows like Married at First Sight and 90 Day Fiancé have turned “will they or won’t they” into “will they stay together?” In retrospect, these reality TV mutations seem inevitable following the sheer repetition of romantic comedy tropes (to my absolute delight) in the 80s, 90s, and 00s. The reality TV mutants are the natural descendants of subgenres like teen rom-coms (She’s All That, 10 Things I Hate About You, Can’t Hardly Wait) and all the Apatow variants (40-Year-Old Virgin, Funny People, Forgetting Sarah Marshall).
But fear not; the genre isn’t dead. There’s a mounting number of sitcoms that have quietly filled the (deeply felt) rom-com void. These are shows like You’re the Worst, Catastrophe, Master of None, and most recently and most excellently, Lovesick, which have all discarded the “will they or won’t they” model that Friends (among so many others) relied on in favor of exploring a semirealistic relationship. The question isn’t Will they finally get together? (nor is it Can this couple that met in absurd fashion stay together?), but What does it look like when they do? These TV shows have wrested the genre back from Mike Fleiss by changing the terms of the romantic comedy. Suddenly, hard work and emotional conflict are inherent in the conceit, and any depictions that gloss over either ring hollow. The Bachelor et al. can have the old model. The new version is reaching new depths.
Imagine if Notting Hill Hugh Grant was a few years removed from university, had friends who were still hitting the pub instead of hosting dignified dinner parties, was hung up on not just one girl but on many over several years, and also had an STD. This is Netflix’s Lovesick, the latest TV rom-com. It’s the perfect streaming show to satiate the Ephron fanatics and Richard Curtis–heads, all while still maturing the form.
The third season dropped on January 1, and there are now a total of 22 episodes chronicling Dylan’s (Johnny Flynn) quest to track down all of his ex-girlfriends and one night stands to inform them that he has chlamydia and they, too, need to get tested. His copilots as he revisits all his former flames are his best friends, Luke (played by The Crown’s Daniel Ings) and Evie (played by Antonia Thomas, better known to Anglophiles as Alisha from Misfits, and better known to procedural enthusiasts as Claire Browne from The Good Doctor). Nearly all episodes contain a flashback showing Dylan, and sometimes Luke, in a previous relationship. Depending on the flashback, Evie is either single or dating Mal, her future fiancé. The arc is complicated by Dylan and Evie’s ill-timed feelings for each other. When he’s hung up on her, she’s with Mal. When her feelings for him are too much to bear, he’s about to move in with his latest girlfriend.
Chlamydia aside, it sounds conventional thus far, and much of Seasons 1 and 2 were. Lovesick has always been charming—even when it was called Scrotal Recall during its initial run on Channel 4 in the UK and on Netflix. (It was renamed for Season 2 when Netflix became the sole network involved.) In its initial seasons, Lovesick was a compact, compelling comedy with a clever premise, the undeniable Ings, and a radiant Thomas. (Flynn works just fine as an emotionally indulgent lead.) But now in Season 3, Lovesick has catapulted itself into the ranks of more complex rom-coms. In Episode 3, after Evie confesses to Dylan that she loves him, in a crowded bar, they kiss in the middle of a quaint, glistening, empty cobblestone street. And then there are five more episodes.
Dylan, Evie, and crucially, Luke spend the next five installments living in a new reality. They had spent the preceding seven years as a merry trio, alternately seeking and evading meaningful connections, always as three friends. Evie and Dylan first have to grapple with who they are, together and individually, as a couple, and then they have to account for the emotional baggage we’ve watched them accumulate over two-plus seasons. Luke would never allow himself to be saddled by third-wheel status, but like anyone in their late twenties, he has to reckon with the instability that comes from realizing that the friends with whom you’ve grown up are now on a diverging timeline. The final five episodes require a modicum of suspension of disbelief in terms of the plot, but they are startlingly realistic on the emotional register.
One of Lovesick’s many charms is that each episode is named for a woman on Dylan’s list. Three episodes are named after a bartender that the trio meets at a wedding in the pilot (“Abigail”) and whom Dylan goes on to date. She’s significant enough to be the namesake of the Season 2 finale, “Abigail (Again),” and Season 3, Epsiode 3, “Abigail (Again, Again).” She’s is eminently likeable, but she’s no Evie, and the show invites you to root for a Dylan-and-Evie relationship from the first episode.
The Dylan-Evie-Abigail dynamic is not unlike the Jim-Pam-Karen triangle on The Office (the U.S. version), except after Jim returned from New York to barge in on Pam’s interview (in one of the most swoon-worthy TV moments of the century), Karen was hardly mentioned again. On Lovesick, Dylan’s entire sexual history hovers, and after Dylan breaks up with Abigail for Evie in “Abigail (Again, Again),” she lingers as an explicit obstacle for the new couple. Their first fight occurs in the next episode, “Evie,” on Day 1 of the relationship, when Dylan returns from collecting his things from Abigail’s apartment. He is surly, Evie pushes him to find out what’s wrong, and he snaps at her: “You won’t let me be fine. How am I meant to come in to you? What am I meant to say? … I feel so guilty. I feel so toxic with it. I don’t want to feel sad today.”
This conversation shouldn’t be revelatory, but it is an astounding departure from most rom-coms, whether TV or movies. Dylan and Evie are challenged by who they are—their shared and separate experiences, and the exes left behind—and not any deus ex machina, people, or events. Neither person is moving to a new city, neither is harboring a secret. Dylan is challenged by the conflict of relief and excitement on the one hand, and guilt and sadness on the other. Even when TV relationships are afforded the nuance that any person with feelings would recognize, they rarely interrogate the directly conflicting feelings that Dylan parses. Evie responds with empathy: “If it was me, I wouldn’t be OK. When it was me, I wasn’t OK … It’s good that it’s not easy. Only a psychopath would break up with someone and not care about them, not think about them a minute later.” And yet, this eruption and acknowledgment of challenge does not drive them apart. No one slams a door; no one stares out a window longingly. They hug, he wallows, she understands.
The scene is a first-ballot Rom-Com Hall of Fame moment for its ability to stir as much emotion as any of the vaunted movies in the genre; the entire show exceeds its predecessors in the empathy department. Lovesick feels like it is written by a team of people who just get it. They get why rom-coms have an audience, they get the joy of rooting for a couple that’s clearly Meant To Be, and they also get that love stories need not exist in two-person silos.
The character of Luke is a testament to this last point. He is Dylan’s enabler and Evie’s confidant, as central to their lives (and the show) as Dylan and Evie are to each other. His world is also rocked by their new relationship. To quote him, “I knew what I was with that. Then they changed things. They moved on. Dylan and Evie are a couple now, and it’s a different world because of it.” He says that to his wacky (and wonderful) therapist, who in the previous episode diagnosed him as someone who, “while pleased for your friends who have just gotten together, it has left you fearing being left behind with a sense you are running out of time to find what they have already found, and a deeper fear that perhaps you are incapable of having what they have.” This doctor also deserves credit in the pantheon of great fictional analysts (and someone from whom many a Woody Allen character would have benefitted), but more importantly, he voices a primal anxiety that Luke acts out and is surely too familiar to many millennials. Best friends are central to all rom-coms—just ask Judy Greer or Heather Burns—but rarely are they given the depth and sympathy that Luke gets.
Perhaps the centrality of feelings on Lovesick makes it an emblematic sitcom for millennials, a generation maligned for its myopia. Lovesick may be guilty of indulging the impulses that drive my generation to constantly consider their own mental states. But it is the very indulgence that makes Lovesick feel exceedingly familiar.
Black Mirror is one Netflix’s signature shows, which, like Lovesick, began as an English production before finding a home on the streaming network. The sci-fi series dropped its new season just three days before the new Lovesick episodes. While it’s not comedic, Black Mirror has told some of the most devastating love stories that would likely appeal to much of Lovesick’s audience. Good luck watching Entire History of You or Be Right Back or San Junipero if you’re feeling remotely vulnerable. Those episodes, like the rest of Black Mirror, require viewers to ponder a dark future and the ways in which our reality is already there. It’s bleak—too bleak for me at this particular juncture in history.
We need Lovesick. It’s easy to watch, the stakes are low by prestige TV standards (which is to say no one dies a horrific death or suffers from a deep personality disorder), and, even if the characters seem aggravatingly millennial, it’s almost timeless. Texting bubbles hardly appear on screen and, maybe in one of the biggest shocks, Dylan meets up with his exes in person to tell them about his chlamydia. Because the friendships and all attendant feelings are at the center of the show, it feels more akin to Ephron and Curtis rom-com classics. With a few notable exceptions, Hollywood has largely stopped making these movies, and Lovesick is a worthy fill-in.
Too often, watching TV feels like work. The overwhelming number of options aside, many critically lauded shows have high-concept conceits that require a certain level of buy-in, or the unfurling of the story moves at a glacial pace. It doesn’t have to be this hard. Lovesick comes in 25-minute installments that are full of heart and have a sufficient amount of plot to advance the modest conceit. It may sound boring, but sometimes heart is all a TV show needs to convey. Lovesick delivers it in droves.